Dutch Supreme Court upholds Srebrenica deaths liability

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – The Dutch Supreme Court yesterday upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Netherlands is partially liable in the deaths of some 350 men who were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The Netherlands’ highest court ruled that Dutch United Nations (UN) peacekeepers evacuated the men from their military base near Srebrenica on July 13, 1995, despite knowing that they “were in serious jeopardy of being abused and murdered” by Bosnian Serb forces.

Presiding Judge Kees Streefkerk said “the state did act wrongfully” and told relatives of the dead they can now claim compensation from the Dutch government.

“They are responsible and they will always have a stain,” Munira Subasic, one of the relatives who brought the case, said angrily of the Dutch. “We know what happened; we don’t need this court to tell us.”

The ruling upholding a 2017 appeals court judgment was the latest in a long-running legal battle by a group of relatives known as ‘The Mothers of Srebrenica’ to hold the Dutch government accountable for the deaths of their family members in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

The men were among 5,000 terrified residents of the Srebrenica area who took shelter in the Dutch peacekeepers’ base when the region was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide by a UN war crimes tribunal in 2017 for masterminding the massacre that left some 8,000 men and boys dead. Mladic has appealed.

A member of a group of victims’ relatives, ‘the Mothers of Srebrenica’, answers journalists’ questions in front of the Dutch Supreme Court
Presiding Judge Kees Streefkerk (L) looks on before the Supreme Court ruling in the cassation proceedings of ‘the Mothers of Srebrenica’ (group of victims’ relatives) case against the Dutch State at the Dutch Supreme Court in the Hague. – PHOTOS: AFP

The Supreme Court said that relatives of the slain men are eligible to claim 10 per cent of their financial damages because the court estimated that the men would have had a 10 per cent chance of survival if the Dutch troops had allowed them to remain inside their compound.

The estimate was lower than the lower court’s previous ruling of 30 per cent, meaning that the potential compensation is lower.

“The Dutch government is responsible for genocide,” said relative Kada Hotic. “One per cent or 10 per cent, it does not matter – they are responsible.”

She added, “We don’t care about money, we wanted justice.”

The relatives found support from Remko de Bruijne, a veteran of the Dutch peacekeeping force, known as Dutchbat, who attended the hearing in The Hague.

“I can understand their reaction because I don’t think it’s fair,” De Bruijne told Associated Press outside the court. “It’s not a fair thing. If people make mistakes – and Dutchbat made a mistake – so be it, that’s fine. I mean, I’m human I can make mistakes. But to say you made a mistake but it’s like 10 per cent, that’s not fair.”

Dutch judgments in the case have been hailed as internationally significant in establishing that governments can be held liable if the peacekeepers they send on UN missions fail to protect civilians during armed conflicts.

The Supreme Court did not follow legal advice from its own Advocate General, who issued a non-binding advisory opinion earlier this year calling the 2017 Dutch judgment “irrational” and saying it “cannot be upheld”.

The case revolves around the role played by the outnumbered and outgunned Dutch UN peacekeepers stationed in the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia as Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces overran the area.

It focusses on some 350 men who were among the 5,000 terrified residents who took refuge in the Dutch battalion’s base near Srebrenica but were expelled by the peacekeepers as part of a mass evacuation.

The Dutch forces improvised a funnel of vehicles and troops through which the residents left the base. As they did, Mladic’s forces picked out the men, took them away and later killed them.

In its 2017 judgment, the Hague Court of Appeal ruled that the Dutch forces’ actions deprived the men of any chance of survival.

The court estimated their chance of survival if they had stayed in the Dutch compound at around 30 per cent and said the Dutch state was liable for 30 per cent of losses suffered by their surviving relatives. The Supreme Court lowered that number to 10 per cent.

After overrunning Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb forces sorted thousands of residents by gender, then trucked the males away and began killing them. The bodies were plowed into hastily dug mass graves, which were later bulldozed and scattered among other burial sites in an attempt to hide evidence of the massacre.